Paris has handed the probe to investigating magistrates over the colossal blast that killed 171 people, injured thousands and displaced some 300,000 people.

French Defence Minister Florence Parly speaks to journalists as she visits the devastated site of the massive explosion at the port of Beirut, Lebanon. August 14, 2020.
French Defence Minister Florence Parly speaks to journalists as she visits the devastated site of the massive explosion at the port of Beirut, Lebanon. August 14, 2020. (Thaier Al-Sudani / Reuters)

France has confirmed that two French citizens were among the 171 people killed in Beirut's massive port blast last week. Paris has stepped up its probe by handing it to investigating magistrates, according to prosecution sources.

The investigation has now been entrusted to two magistrates who can ultimately decide whether to press charges over the August 4 blast, a source in the office of the Paris prosecutor said.

Another source, who asked not to be named, said on Friday that two French citizens were now confirmed to have been killed in the explosion.

The death of one French victim – prominent Lebanon-based architect Jean-Marc Bonfils – had already been confirmed but the second victim has yet to be publicly identified.

French prosecutors on August 5 opened a probe into "involuntary injury" using their jurisdiction to investigate acts committed abroad when French people are among the victims.

Investigators and police from France have already been at the scene in Beirut for several days to reconstruct the chain of events that led to the explosion.

"Swift, independent investigation"

UN human rights experts demanded a swift, independent investigation into the catastrophic Beirut explosion, citing deep concern about irresponsibility and impunity in Lebanon.

The group also called on Thursday for a relatively-rare special debate at the United Nations Human Rights Council this September.

UN experts do not speak for the United Nations but report their findings to it.

Lebanon's President Aoun has rejected any international probe into the Beirut port blast, as demanded by protesters.

"We support calls for a prompt, impartial, credible and independent investigation based on human rights principles, to examine all claims, concerns and needs in relation to the explosion as well as the underlying human rights failures," some 38 UN experts said in a joint statement.

The investigation should have a broad mandate to probe "any systemic failures of the Lebanese authorities and institutions to protect human rights".

"We are deeply concerned about the level of irresponsibility and impunity surrounding human and environmental devastation on this scale," they said.

The investigation should protect the confidentiality of victims and witnesses, and its findings should be made public, the experts said.

READ MORE: Fury in Lebanon as officials admit knowing stockpile could blow up Beirut

State of emergency 

Lebanon's parliament on Thursday approved a two-week state of emergency in Beirut, declared after last week's gigantic portside explosion, giving the army greater powers to suppress resurgent protests.

Top diplomats jetted in to show solidarity and contribute to the massive ongoing aid effort, but also to weigh in on political developments following a blast widely blamed on state corruption.

Dozens of demonstrators shouted as lawmakers arrived at parliament to ratify the emergency measure, but protesters, outnumbered by security forces, failed to block the MPs' cars.

Lebanese are furious at a political leadership that allowed a massive shipment of ammonium nitrate fertiliser, a powerful explosive, to languish for years in a port warehouse despite repeated safety warnings.

AFP and Reuters found that right up until the eve of the blast, officials had exchanged warnings over the cargo, but did nothing, despite experts' warnings it could cause a major disaster.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab and his cabinet resigned on Monday, but he still leads a transitional administration.

The state of emergency approved by parliament allows the army to close down assembly points and prohibit gatherings deemed threats to national security.

The move has worried Lebanon's 10-month-old anti-government protest movement, which had faded amid the coronavirus pandemic and deepening economic hardship, but had returned to the streets in force since the August 4 disaster.

READ MORE: Lebanon's assembly ratifies state of emergency as protests continue

Crackdown on protests

Human Rights Watch said it was "very concerned" the state of emergency would serve "as a pretext to crack down on protests and snuff out the very legitimate grievances of a large segment of the Lebanese population".

A military official said the now formalised state of emergency would place all security forces under the command of the army, which would oversee the "post-explosion phase".

The official, who asked not to be named because he is not authorised to speak on the issue, stressed that it would not lead to "a crackdown" on civil freedoms.

"We support the right to peaceful protest, even during a state of emergency," he said.

More than a week after the massive explosion, rescuers on Thursday retrieved the body of a young man who was at the wheel of his car which sunk in the Beirut harbour, the army said.

FBI joins probe 

The blast has renewed calls from Lebanon's international partners for long-overdue reforms to the political system and to shore up the deeply indebted economy.

US envoy David Hale, who arrived in Beirut on Thursday for a three-day visit, announced that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) would join the probe into the blast.

"The FBI will soon join Lebanese and international investigators, at the invitation of the Lebanese, in order to help answer questions that I know everyone has about the circumstances that led up to this explosion," he told reporters during a tour of a damaged area near the port.

Calls had been growing in Lebanon for an international and independent investigation, an option President Michel Aoun has so far ruled out.

French and other foreign investigators had already been working at the blast site but their findings were overseen centrally by the Lebanese state's top security echelon.

READ MORE: UN Security Council at loggerheads over Lebanon peacekeeping operation

Source: TRTWorld and agencies